Harshing on Das Man

The two main passages on das Man (the “they”) in the first division of Being and Time (sections 27 and 34-38) present us with a jarring shift in tone. Though Heidegger repeatedly emphasizes that he’s not making any kind of evaluative judgment, it’s hard not to walk away from those passages believing that living in the “they” really, really sucks. A couple of my students emphasized that Heidegger does say that Being-with is an irreducible aspect of Dasein’s Being and even wanted to put a positive spin on it — for instance, isn’t it kind of cool that we can use “idle talk” as a way of expressing our simple desire to hang out with each other? Yet if Heidegger wanted to emphasize the good side of the “they,” he would have had to write these sections very differently.

One could chalk this up to Heidegger’s personal conservatism and distrust of bourgeois mass culture, etc., but I think there may be a reason internal to his project. He says over and over that his goal is not to carry out anything like a philosophical anthropology, but to cut straight to the question of the meaning of Being as such. His path requires him to start in everydayness, and everydayness does give him a lot of interesting and useful ontological clues (which he shows in the awkwardly placed sections in chapter 6 on reality and truth) — so that one might think look at that evidence along with his critiques of scientific reductionism and conclude that he was simply favoring everyday know-how over fancy book-learning. And so he has to highlight the aspects of everydayness that militate against any authentic disclosure of truth and enforce a kind of unreflective utilitarianism coupled with conformism for its own sake.

5 thoughts on “Harshing on Das Man

  1. This post is probably too basic and boring. More speculatively: I wonder if Heidegger is implicitly setting up a Socrates-like figure of authenticity — against both the unreflective general public that seeks mindless conformity (parallel to Socrates’ prosecutors) and the sophists who have no legitimate grounds for their truth-claims (modern metaphysics, scientific reductionism). We can see Socrates’ insistence on staying in the city in Heidegger’s insistence that authenticity is another mode of everydayness, another way of grasping its structures — all authenticity must depart from and return to everydayness, etc. And of course, the true test of authenticity is the willingness to face down death.

  2. Although you’re right that the main point of these section of B&T is to distinguish “inauthenticity” from “authentic” Dasein, Martin Heidegger is, I think, also analyzing the symptomatology of the Weimar Republic circa 1927-29, which will soon collapse and bring about Adolf Hitler’s Nazi takeover. The “das Man” sections could be read as diagnosing the “tyranny of public opinion” that will enable the Nazis to take power “democratically,” with the enthusiastic support of the German public. Weimar “democracy” was a precarious state, in which Carl Schmitt’s “state of exception” (rule by diktat) was invoked 250 times. Martin Heidegger himself will, of course, briefly succumb to the delusion that Hitler & the Nazis will solve “The German Problem”(and not themselves become a much gretaer problem…) So while I wouldn’t defend the MH of 1927-34, I’d say he learns something from the experience, which is recorded in “Overcoming Metaphysics” (1936-46), I’d just say: look at the history. American students in the 1960s & 70s would read Heidegger on “das Man” & say: Right on! Off the Man! But American students in the 21st century are so saturated with :”social media” & its “idle chatter” that they can’t grasp how totalitarianism begins by installing itself in the public mind. And only later stages its coup d’etat. Adolf Hitler said in 1929: “We have no need of methods other than legal” to take power in Weimar democracy. And what was Nazi Germany except a terrorist dictatorship & police state
    supported by an enthusiastic public opinion? (The rule of “das Man”…)…

  3. “This post is probably too basic and boring.”

    Actually, I thought it was really interesting and insightful; I had never thought of it that way before.

  4. Eric, I have a couple questions. First, why would Heidegger take a break from his ontological project to offer commentary on contemporary political events? Second, why should we give any credence to that political commentary given that he disastrously fell for the very totalitarian regime he was supposedly warning us about?

    Meanwhile, my students belong to the benighted generation that you complain of, and they were perfectly capable of seeing how Heidegger’s analysis of the “they” resonated with their everyday lives.

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